"The Change You Wish to See"

Sunday sermon from February 9, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Jesus said to them, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” You are the light of the world. You know, I am willing to put up with a certain amount of Biblical dissonance. I take as one of the hallmarks and privileges of being Presbyterian that we can tolerate a certain amount of Biblical inconsistency, like we try in reading these ancient and holy words not to lose the forest for the trees. But you know, if you hang out in churches long enough some of these words get etched in your brain and among those etched into my brain are Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gospel of John: “I am the light of the world,” he says. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And I don’t think it’s asking an indelicate question to put these two verses together and shake our heads a bit. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples, and then later on apparently he says, “I am the light of the world,” and he seems quite insistent in each moment and frankly I’m not sure he can have it both ways. Or else we have a political flip-flopper for a Messiah.

And frankly, given what seems like two mutually exclusive options — I mean honestly, either we’re the light or he’s the light and I don’t think there’s much space for negotiation — given the two choices, the temptation is just to pick one and go with it and try our best not to bother with the scripture passage in which the other one appears, and if we are going to just choose one over the other then I personally vote for the John passage because it sounds so much easier. “I am the light of the world, and whoever follows me will never walk in darkness,” and personally I like the idea of following a guy who’s doing all the work. It sounds like we’ve all gone backpacking for the weekend and in my pack there’s a change of clothes and a toothbrush and I’ve got a granola bar in one hand and a gatorade in the other and I am just skipping merrily down the trail and then Jesus is up there at the front of the line and he’s got all the food and the whole tent in his bag, and he’s got a couple of cast iron pans dangling just for good measure, because apparently Jesus brings cast iron pans when he goes backpacking, and in one hand he’s holding a firewood axe and in the other there’s an industrial-strength flashlight shooting way off into the woods and this is my kind of camping. Why would I want to be the light of the world when I could get somebody else to do it for me?

By contrast, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s words to the disciples is challenging, to say the least. Challenging because it takes this image of light, an image woven throughout scripture as an image of hope, an image of deliverance, an image of salvation, an image as powerful for the Israelites in exile as it would have been to the disciples gathered around the mount, an image suffused with the possibility of change and transformation and progress and deliverance and liberation and it takes all of these images of theological promise and puts them directly on our backs. And we’re just in chapter five. I mean, he’s only just gotten here. We’re only moments in to that Sermon on the Mount, only moments in to Jesus’ ministry; frankly, I don’t know if he’s gotten enough buy-in at this point to start passing the buck but here he is, saying “You know, this really is all going to be on you. All that Beatitude stuff I said. That whole program of justice and mercy and love; it was a nice-sounding thing, wasn’t it? Well. that whole thing is really in your hands, now. After all, you are the light.”

Of course that’s how it feels most days, like Jesus gave us a vision in these words of scripture and then turned out the lights to let us figure our way in the dark. Sarah and I have a running stockpile of flashlights in the house, many of them purchased in the statewide panic that led up the New Jersey landfall of Hurricane Sandy. We have a couple of good LED lights that put off a much more powerful beam that you might guess; we have a couple of good pen-sized flashlights for small spaces and small needs. But when Sandy actually hit and we lost power we really had no idea how long it was going to be until we got it back and we really had no concept of how quickly we were going to drain the stockpile of batteries we had amassed and so as often as we could we relied on the last flashlight in our arsenal, which is this emergency light powered entirely by hand. That is, there’s a little crank on the side of it, and if you turn the crank for a few minutes you’ll generate just enough power to throw the softest and most useless beam of light across the room – it’s not powerful enough to help you actually see anything, just powerful enough to make you think you might want to walk over there where it’s pointing but of course by time you get there the beam is dead and you have to crank it up again. So I’m not opposed to the concept; but from experience I can tell you that the execution leaves something to be desired. To be honest, we found it much more effective as an occupier of time than as an illuminator of the world.

To be honest, that’s how I, that’s how we, that’s how all of us feel most days about the whole project of making the light, about the whole project of being the light. Like we’re not opposed to the concept, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Like Matthew says we are to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works but honestly some days – you know the days I’m talking about – some days our batteries are just about run down. Some days our power is just about run out. And there doesn’t have to be a bad guy here. There doesn’t have to be someone out there running on a platform opposed to justice, peace, and love; it’s just that the task of being the light for this vision is so overwhelming. I’m all for the concepts of justice and peace and love but as for becoming a model of them myself – well, that just seems unlikely – and if the thrust of this Gospel, if the thrust of these lines from Matthew is that I need to become someone I am demonstrably not in order that I satisfy the God who made me demonstrably not that way in the first place, then of course I vote for John. I vote for John every time, because Matthew’s text says “You are the light of the world” but I’ve been sitting here cranking this flashlight for as long as I can remember and still I can barely see across the room and it’s not that I don’t want to go to the Promised Land but honestly I can’t get from here to the doorway without tripping on the coffee table. I like the vision, but I can’t see the way past the furniture. And I doubt you can, either.

And yet I wonder whether these two verses from Matthew and John are really so diametrically opposed. John’s image, of course, begins even in the prologue, in the words seared on our hearts in which the light has come into the darkness and not overcome it; for John, the world is darkness, and the only way light gets in is when God comes in the flesh. But I’m not sure that Matthew has such a drastic cosmology. Several weeks from now, we will meander across Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus takes his chosen disciples to the mountaintop and reveals his true self: Matthew writes that his face “shone like the sun” and that his clothes were as white as light. Which is to say that even in Matthew, even for disciples given this daunting task of lighting the darkness, they are never given to do that task alone. Rather they are joined in their journey by one whose vision is far more powerful than anything they could see with their own eyes. And of course in John it’s the very much the same story in different words, the story of the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus, the story of God’s promise of presence in and with the disciples even after Jesus has left their midst. It turns out that either way you vote you get the same result: you get the story of God who is faithful to us even when we have lost faith in ourselves. You get the story of the Holy Spirit who loves us even when we have so often forgotten how to one another. You get the story of Jesus who is bringing vision to creation, even when we have lost sight of the way.

We’re not far removed from one of my favorite moments of the liturgical year, the candlelight service of Christmas Eve. This year as usual we read the scripture from John 1 — that the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it — and then we distributed light throughout the sanctuary on those little pew candles that churches always bring out on Christmas Eve. But as much as I love that moment, it does seem like the choreography is just a bit out of sync with the theology. Isn’t the Gospel of Christmas Eve that we have some light in this world greater than what we ourselves can provide, and so isn’t it just a bit odd that we symbolize that Gospel by turning off all the lights except for the ones that we ourselves can hold? And then you’re reading the prayers and singing the hymn and trying to hold this candle steady and hoping against hope that you’re not dripping wax on the floor and hoping against hope that you don’t set your hymnal on fire and really everybody kind of holds their breath for a few moments — admittedly, a few very beautiful moments – and instead of the good news I instead just feel a tremendous sense of anxiety over whether or not we will burn down the sanctuary. So I submit to you that the Gospel is not embodied in that moment of candlelight alone. Rather it is best proclaimed in the moment that follows — when the lights come back on, when we remember that the power of a hundred small candles pales in comparison to the power of just a few overhead bulbs, the moment when we sing with joy that our path in this world is lit not just by our own candles but by Jesus on the mountaintop, shining like the sun.

And so this morning in this sanctuary we are engaged in another moment of proclamation of the Gospel, a service of ordination and installation for our new class of session elders. This morning we charge MJ and Donna and Mary Linn with the same words spoken to those disciples long ago: “You are the light of the world.” Let your light shine in the world so that others may see. Let your light shine in this church so that we may know the way. Nurture that small wax candle as best you can. Let it guide you through session meetings and committee meetings and hospital visits and late-night phone calls and cavernous email threads, and let it guide you through the never-boring and occasionally-gracious and always-human journey of helping to serve God’s church. But no not forget – let none of us forget – that it is not finally our light that guides us, nor is it our vision leads the way. Rather we are led by that light shining from the mountaintop, that light that we can’t always see. And so we walk by faith, because our candles alone are woefully inadequate to the darkness. And so we walk by faith, stumbling through the night and wary of the obstacles. And so we walk by faith, by the conviction nonetheless of light unseen. And so we walk by faith, and we let Jesus worry about the furniture.